Music theory is one of the most mystifying and confusing topics for many musicians. But, does it have to be this way?

Today, we’ll be discussing music theory and some mindset shifts you can take to open up the world of theory to your mind and ears. You can make the music theory experience more accessible, fun, and easily actionable in enhancing your own musical growth and joy. Here’s how….

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Adam: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Musicality Now. I’m Adam Liette, operations manager for Musical U, and I’m joined by the Musical U team for this rewind episode. Now, if you’ve ever heard one of our rewind episodes before, the team and I go back through our past interviews and share with you some of our favorite moments from the show. We’ll include links to the previous rewind episodes in the show notes as well.

Adam: Today, we’re going to be diving into the world of music theory, but perhaps not the way that you would expect. While there are a myriad of tips about theory that we’ve covered in great detail thus far on the show, this episode is all about the mindset that musicians should have when they are learning theory.

Adam: Ask yourself, why should you learn music theory in the first place? And what are some of the approaches that will be helpful in making music theory part of your musicality, not just a disconnected subject that you study alongside your music practice. But before we go any further into this subject, I’ll let the team introduce themselves. Andrew.

Andrew: Hello, I’m Andrew Bishko. I’m the product manager at Musical U. I’m a long-time music educator and performer, and I play wind instruments and keyboard instruments, and soon, I’m … more instruments … I’m going to be adding some more. I’m really happy to be here to talk about music theory.

Stewart: Hello, I am Stewart Hilton, and I am the community conductor at Musical U. Most of you know me inside the site as GTRSTU777, and I have probably chatted with most of you in there. Also, I am a, I guess you call a professional musician. I go out and play with a tribute artist who does Elton John, Billy Joel, and Rascal Flatts, and then also have another band on the side. So, I’m looking forward to talking about all we are going to talk about, and that is it.

Adam: Fantastic. It’s so awesome to have you guys with me again. We talk about these things so much just on chat and through Musical U, through the various discussion boards, but to get face-to-face and to get to be able to share these things is always such a pleasure. So, what we do, how this show works is we’ll introduce an old interview from the show, and then we’ll all talk about it and various things that we learned. I know Andrew picked a particularly awesome interview that we’d like to start with. Andrew, why don’t you kick us away.

Andrew: All right, this is the Jeremy Burns Matthew, I forget his last name, but they have a podcast themselves called Music 101. Is it Music Theory 101?

Adam: Yes, Music Student 101.

Andrew: Music Student 101, and they’re an interesting pair. One of them is super-conservatory, educated, degreed, master musician, and the other one is basically coming from like a garage band background. They’re both professional players and everything, but they are on a mission to make music theory more fun and more accessible, and more purposeful and practical and useful for people. So, let’s go ahead, I’m going to have lots to say about this clip and about another idea I wanted to share too. So, let’s go ahead and listen to clip.

Mathew: Basically looking at, well, here’s all this music that has come before us, and this is what is going on in this music, and it makes us feel this way. We like it for this reasons. Why is that? How does it do that? It’s more of a process of discovery, and I think that if you understand that, it’s easier to communicate that to other people. I try very hard not to slam down a set of rules and say, “This is how you write music.” What I try to do is say, “This is kind of the way music has worked up until now.” There are exceptions to everything, but this song that makes you feel really sad, or this song … it feels like it’s moving forward to a conclusion in a way that songs I write or whatever may not be doing that.

Mathew: Well, there is a music principle reason for that, and I find that’s easier for people to deal with. It’s less intimidating to think, “Well, this is sort of like a secret thing I can discover,” than thinking, “Well, this is a whole lot of stuff I have to learn before I can consider myself an educated musician.”

Andrew: Okay, so first thing, there’s a lot in there. But right before the beginning of this clip, he’s talking about the rules, and he mentions it in this clip too, is that a lot of people think when they think about music theory, they think about rules. Oh, you have to do it this way, and you have to do it that way, and he’s saying it’s not about the rules. It’s about figuring out what … This is how the music feels, and this is what it feels like to me. Well, how did that happen? What was done musically to produce that feeling, to produce that emotion? So it’s more of a description than it is a rule that’s like, “Oh, you have to do it this way, or you have to do it that way.” That’s what a lot of people get turned off about theory, because they think about rules.

Andrew: When you’re learning something specific, let’s say you want to learn how to write a Bach four-part choral or you want to learn about a certain jazz progression, well, yeah, there are certain rules, but in a sense it’s not really rules sort of like you do this or you don’t do this. It’s more like rules in the sense of a game. When you have a game and you’re playing rules, the rules are what make the game fun, what make the game work, what make it hold together.

Andrew: I watch my children with their friends, and it’s interesting because they will say, “Okay, let’s do this. Let’s play this game,” and they’ll spend 20 minutes negotiating the rules of this game. “We’re going to do this, this is going to be the rule, this is going to be the rule.” They spend all this time negotiating what the game is going to be, and then they’ll play the game for three minutes and they’re all happy and satisfied with how it came it out. But it was all that rules, all this negotiation, and not in the sense of rules like something where if you break the law, you’re going to go to jail. It’s more like rules of the game.

Andrew: Another way I like to look at the rules, it’s more like the laws of nature. Okay? We all know that there’s something called gravity and it’s something that we work with. We’re not like, “Oh man, gravity, what a drag. It’s just always pulling me down.” We’re like, “Yeah, gravity. Well, I can learn to jump higher and I can learn to climb a tree. I can learn to do this, or I can learn to lift up. I can always be working with gravity and playing with that.” That’s kind of like what music theory is. It’s like a law of nature. It’s like how things are, and it’s like what are we going to do to ply with that, how are we going to work with that?

Andrew: Communication is the other thing that he mentions, and I remember in the 80s when I was in this reggae band I was really stimulated. I wanted to write songs. I would write these songs and I would go back to the guys, “Oh, it goes something like this. I want the bass to go boom, boom, boom, boom.” I couldn’t sing either, so it was a combination of not being able to say, “Okay, guitar, these are the chords I want you to play. Bass, this is notes I want you to play.” I was trying to communicate with them and they were amazingly patient with me, and the songs came out good. But gosh, it was so tedious to try and get my ideas across to get the things that I was thinking of and hearing in my mind, and to communicate them with other people.

Andrew: If I could have just gone in and said, “Hey, here’s the chords, here’s the notes, boom.” Now, because I know music theory, I can do that. I can even write out a score or I can say these are the chords, or I want you to play this note or that note, and that’s because of the music theory. I mean, that’s why I went back for a music education. That’s why I said, “Oh gosh, I really want to keep doing music, but I need to stop what I’m doing now and I need to educate myself.” I quit the band and I went to school. And gosh, it made a huge difference. So, communication, being able to communicate with others is the next thing.

Andrew: The other thing I like in this description is again, it’s about how thing work. It’s not so much about what you have to do, but it’s how it all works. It’s like, okay, if I’m going to play … and it’s even how things don’t work too. It’s like if I’m going to be playing in one key and then throw in some notes from another scale, it’s like, okay, now I know why those notes don’t work or I know why those notes don’t work and I like it that way. It’s like how does this music feel, and how am I going to produce that feeling? Music theory gives me the tools to say, okay, if I want something to feel this way, I can do this in my music. I can use a minor chord here or I can use this kind of a progression, or I can use a downward sequence. I know what these things are now, and so it’s like I can produce that. It’s really cool to be able to know that and having there be a principle behind what our experience and what our emotions are.

Andrew: So, I love what he said at the end. It’s like this is a secret I can discover. This is about discovery. Music theory is about discovery. I can figure this out and then I can use it. That is the wonderful thing about learning it. Now, I do want to add one thing about music theory that came to me as I was listening to this, and I don’t know if it’s addressed in another podcast episode, but when I was a child, I learned music theory in a class. I had a music theory class with a tuba player name Eric Benson, whose claim to fame was that he had written the Moog synthesizer part for the old TV guide commercial. I don’t know if you remember that, but it was like one of the first commercials to use the Moog synthesizer and he did that. Anyway, he was a great guy, but everything we were doing, he would sit at the piano and I would sit at the chair, and I’d be writing things on a piece of paper. It all made sense to my mind.

Andrew: Then I went to my piano lessons, and my piano teacher was great. He was this Lithuanian guy, Jonas, classical pianist, great guy. I was learning my piano, but he never talked about theory. I always had such a rough time. I would see a stack of notes and say, “Oh, my gosh. I have to read each one of those stack of notes,” the big black stack of notes. But if I had understood theory, not just in my head about what it looked like on paper, but also what it looked like with me hands … and this is something I discovered when I started teaching. Piano was always really hard for me when I was growing up. I learned it and I could play a good song, but it took me forever to learn songs. But when I started teaching and teaching beginner pianist, I started figuring out, oh, okay, if I know that this is the shape for this chord … and you guitar players know all about the shapes, but we don’t talk about it in piano.

Andrew: This is a shape. This shape is this chord. It sounds like this chord. And if I move the shape, it’s a different inversion. Getting the theory not just where I could see it on a piece of paper, where I can hear it in my ears and feel it in my hands, putting theory together in all those different ways. So, a lot of times on Musical U, I do a lot of interaction with our members and they say they’re having trouble with something. It’s like invariably, I would say 95% of people who can’t get something or are having trouble with something with ear training or with their music, it’s because they’re not doing it. They’re just listening to tracks and doing the ear training and stuff like that, but they’re not actually playing it on their instrument. They’re not actually singing it with their voice. They’re not actually doing it some way … doing it with their own body. And that is such an important component, taking music theory and making it real. Making it work for you is actually using it in what you’re doing.

Andrew: So, I want to add that to what we were saying about this great podcast from Matt and Jeremy. I’m really excited that we’re doing this, Adam, and that you’ve put this together, because it’s such an important thing and it’s so cool and so exiting. Most people are like, “Music theory, oh my gosh.” There was that meme … I don’t know if you posted that meme or someone posted the meme. It’s like there is a music theory instructor and he’s trying to teach this class and the class is going, “Aw.” He says, “Come on, it’s music theory. It’s not rocket science.” Then the next frame, you have the rocket science teacher and he’s saying, “Come on, this is rocket science. It’s not music theory.” Getting beyond that is what it’s all about. Changing the mindset, as you talked about.

Adam: Andrew, you stole my joke. I was planning on telling that later in the show and now I can’t. But that’s okay because it’s worth telling, and I love some of the things you said there because it’s so … we tend to inflate this idea of theory is this is very serious work that we must very seriously work at and studiously attempt. It’s not that way at all. I remember, gosh, we’re going to get to John Hatcher later on the show, but John Hatcher talks about his beginning days of playing when he was just in a garage band, right? And I remember starting that way too, you know, 12, 13 years old playing Nirvana cover songs in a garage.

Adam: It’s like, hey, it’s the power chord. That’s all we played was power chords. And a year later I happened to have this older musician. He was a junior in high school and we ended up playing in a band together. He was like, “Yeah, it’s just the root five octave.” I was like, “Wait, root five octave? What do you …” He showed me the scale degrees, and it’s like, oh. And now that I’m a little more educated and I know … well, that’s why it sounds good because that’s some of the fundamentals of music right there and that’s why those chords sound great, and they sound great no matter what you’re playing. You can’t screw up when you’re playing power chords, which is probably why all the rock stars play them because you can’t screw them up. But just that little insight when I was a kid, like, whoa, and it just opened up this whole other world to me.

Adam: There was this other moment where there was this band back in the late 90s called Korn, and they had this chord that they would play all the time. They called it the Mr. Bungle chord. I guess it was a from the band called Faith No More, Mr. Bungle. It was one of the most awful sounding chords ever because it was root tri-tone octave. So, it sounded absolutely horrible, but in the world of heavy metal it was like, “Yeah, this is great. This is what I’m talking about.” And when you discover, well, that’s why it sounds the way it sounds, it’s because it’s the tri-tone. I just love this concept of playing, then learning from what you’re playing. And this analogy, I mean, we talked about gravity and all sorts of things, and how we don’t get mad at these rules.

Adam: Right now in the United States where I live, it’s the middle of baseball season and everyone’s nuts for baseball, and I am too. But when I’m teaching kids baseball, I don’t teach them everything about baseball. Like okay guys, get to the plate, I’m going to pitch, you hit, run to first. Then once you figure out hitting, then I’m going to teach you about balls and strikes. Then we’re going to learn how to steal, then we’re going to learn about the infield ground rule or infield fly through. It’s through playing that we learn all of these rules. If you try to tackle all the rules at once, you’re just going to go crazy. But learn through playing, learn by doing, it makes the whole experience so much more enjoyable and really, I think, more intuitive. It’s like you play something, you realize it sounds good, you realize it works, and then you learn why it works. That’s kind of a cool way that I like to approach it even to this day.

Stewart: Yeah. I was actually thinking when Andrew was talking and what you just said, I’ve always had the tendency to … I guess I would call it walking in the exit door backwards when it comes to music. I get things in my head, and I’ve talked to Andrew about this before, I’ll get some sort of music thing for the guitar and it’s going in my head. So I go and I work it out on the guitar, but then later after that, then I can go look at the theory and go, oh, okay, this is kind of cool. Andrew’s like, “Well, I think that is a G7 with a minus, but also you’re doing a suspended right there and it’s kind of cool to hear how all that is working together.”

Stewart: I guess I would call it the sweet spot of being creative and also having the theory interrelated, because I’ve seen it go both ways where I’ve known guys who are so theory related that they just stay there and they don’t jump out of anything. Like, “I can only write an original in one, four, five. That’s it.” I’m like, “But you have the rest of the neck. You have all these different chord forms that you could use, or you could try this.” “No, no, no. I must use this mode here.” But then you also, on the flip side, you can have people that are so creative, they don’t know what they’re doing. So, if you say, “Well, what did you just do there? Can you show me what you’re doing?” “I forget.” So yeah, there’s that kind of nice middle ground where everything kind of works in a nice cohesive way. Yeah.

Andrew: That’s such a good point, Stu, because I know that a lot of times my music theory is backtracking. Like what you said, going through the exit door backwards. I’ll be messing around on the piano or I’ll hear something and I’ll mess with it. It’s like, I don’t know what it is when I’m listening to it necessarily in my head, but then it’s like, oh my gosh, that’s what that is. That’s a sus2 chord or that’s a thing, or there’s a moving baseline underneath that, and I can describe it. That way I can write it down and I can remember it, or I can communicate it to other people. So, that is so important.

Andrew: It’s not just like … theory comes from what we do, from the music that we make. It’s like people make the music and then the theory describes it. And yeah, theory can help us when we’re creating music. It’s like sometimes you get stuck and it’s like, okay, well, what scale am I in? Where are my possible chords? It narrows down your choices and you can say, “Okay, these are my …” It narrows down my choices. I can choose from this and this. I can try this or that. Oh wait, that worked, that sounded better. So, it’s this constant thing, going back between how it works what it sounds like and what you know in your head, and then what it sounds like, and trading off on those things.

Andrew: So, it is a sort of dialogue with your understanding and with your experience. In terms of experience, Adam, you mentioned the Mr. Bungle chord, and so I wanted to make sure that we had a chance to experience it. So here, I’m going to … you said it was the root, right? And the tri-tone. That’s a tri-tone, Okay? And then the root again, right? Okay. So, I’m sorry, I don’t have my distortion turned on in my keyboard, but that would awesome with some distortion. Anyway, so we just experienced Mr. Bungle, right? All right. So, carry on.

Adam: Fantastic. Yeah. It requires a certain level of distortion and angst to make it work, but yeah, wonderful.

Stewart: And proper look on your face.

Adam: The proper look on your face. That’s how you look cool when you’re playing the Mr. Bungle chord. Awesome. Well, let’s move on. I have a sound clip from David Reed. So, someone completely different. David Reed has this fantastic website called Improvise For Real. If you ever want to learn all about improvisation and so many different ways to approach it, I mean, David Reed is one of the best out there. It’s been wonderful getting to know him on the show and getting to just share things with him. So, I couldn’t let this episode go without sharing this episode from David Reed.

David Reed: I believe that creativity and a genuine understanding of music is the result of the student having the opportunity to get to know the raw materials of music first hand, okay? I think human beings learn best when we’re able to explore the world directly and get to know the raw materials of our heart. When we make our own decisions, our own creative choices about how to use those materials. It’s through that process that you actually learn to understand music. In other words, improvisation is not the result of 10 years of studying theory and learning what chords go with what other chords, what scales should be on top of those scales and so forth. Improvisation is actually activity that leads you to the understanding in the first place.

David Reed: If you think about the way we teach any other art form … for example, in a painting class, there might be some technique you learn. Maybe you’re talking about lightning effects or foreshortening or whatever, but then there’s always this moment in the class that the teacher says, “All right class, now you’re going to have an opportunity to make your own original painting. You’re going to choose the subject and you’re going to choose the composition, and we’re going to practice this skill that we’ve just learned.”

Adam: It’s so much goodness in that short little clip, right? When I hear that, talking about experiencing the music, it brings me back. When I first really began studying theory it was in my first year at the conservatory, so this was hardcore musicianship. It was counterpoint, it was very strict rules, going all the way back to early Gregorian chant, and it was so strict. The inner rock musician in me that I was, it didn’t make any sense to me. I was being taught these rules and I was like, “Wait a minute. What do you mean parallel fifths don’t work? They are to be avoided. That’s all I do,” right? I play parallel fifths. But I kept with it and I kept experimenting, and kept listening, kept learning.

Adam: I remember my a-ha moment, the point that turned everything else around, and it was Wagner opera, Tristan und Isolde. If you haven’t heard this opera, I’ll put a link in the show notes because it’s worth it. The prelude is one of the most beautiful haunting pieces of music in the entire literature, in my opinion. It starts with the root and goes to this minor sixth interval which resolves into this chord, and it’s just this beautiful chord. And to this day it’s known as the Tristan chord, like how it resolves, how it works functionally. It’s one of those things. Theorists will debate how this chord actually works, so they just call it the Tristan chord. And for me, that opened up so many doors. It’s like, whoa, I get it now. I get how this opens up so many things.

Adam: It inspired years of songwriting. Years, just hearing how that minor sixth interval resolved into this chord and how it went from there, that whole … and how the melody progressed over time, and the various little tricks Wagner was using. It opened up so many doors for me. And so, if something doesn’t work for you yet, if something isn’t connecting yet, keep searching for your moment. Keep searching for that piece of music that will bring it out for you. We all have the music we’re really seriously inspired from. Use that. Use that moment.

Adam: It’s not that I didn’t know theory before then, it’s just it hadn’t been pulled out of me yet. And from there on, I was able to really see the forest for the trees, so to speak. And then David moved into talking about improvisation and how this transpires, and improvisation is something I try, I work at; it’s not something that comes necessarily naturally and easy for me, still to this point. So, I’m continuously working on it, but in my head it all becomes easier when I simplify it and try things one at a time.

Adam: So right now, I’m just starting to play in a jazz combo again, and what I’ve started to do is the first time we go through a chart, it comes time for my solo, I focus on chord tones. Just improvise with the chord tones, and then I’ll move into a pentatonic scale. And as I get more comfortable with the chart, more comfortable with the progression, more comfortable with the changes, then I’m able to experiment more. I’m able to use different passing tones, leading tones, blue notes. By the end of the day, it’s this basic theory knowledge that allowed me to get there.

Adam: I’m trying make sure my children don’t have the feelings about improvisation that I do, so they’re really in their introduction stages of piano. So, I’m having them start improvise with just pentascales, which is really cool because it fits into their one hand, and they’re having so much fun with it. It takes me back to what we’re seeing in the foundations course, where just starting with something very simple … hey, just improvise a rhythm. Take one note and do an improvisation on it. That’s all it is, and just starting with that very basic thing. Man, it just opens up doors.

Adam: I think sometimes we put things in our own way. We try to see it all at once. But just take what’s right in front of you and let it inspire you, let it move you, and I think you’re going to be really surprised by what you find. And the great thing about this is it never ends. It never ends. You are always going to find new music, new things that just … they tug at your heart strings. They get every synapse in your brain firing and you want to discover why this works, why this moves you. It’s this lifelong journey. So, when we talk about being a lifelong musician, that’s where this clip really speaks to me. It’s about that lifelong discovery.

Andrew: Wonderful. I think that improvisation, like what you were saying and what David Reed’s whole is, is improvisation is not the end product of your learning. A lot of people think, and I like this on the site all the time, it’s like, “Okay. Well, once I get this ear training down and once I get this theory down, and once I can do this and this and this, then I’ll improvise.” It’s like, improvise can be your companion and actually your mode of learning all the way through from the very beginning.

Andrew: I’m so glad you’re starting your children out that way because it’s … like Matt was saying, it’s that process of discovery. Let’s say, okay, I want to learn how to do … one of the things I noticed is that when we learn scales, for example. I mean, scales, it’s like … so, when people think of theory, the first thing they think of are the scales. It’s like running up the scales. Okay. So it’s like, okay, you can run up and down the scale, and it’s like, but what does that do for you? Do you ever see that in music? Okay. Sometimes in Mozart you have these scale runs, but it’s not really that common in music that people are just running up and down scales. So, what are you going to do with that?

Andrew: It’s like, so, okay, I want to learn scale. Well, first of all, what if I do that scale from the top to the bottom instead? Oh, my gosh. It’s like a whole different thing. It sounds different, it does something different. Then you start playing around with the notes in that scale. You say, okay, I’m going to do an improvisation and I’m going to use the first three notes in that scale and I’m going to use the second three notes. Or what if I, instead of thinking about the bottom note being C, I’m going to think about it being D instead and using the same notes running up and down the scale. You start to learn that scale inside out by improvising, by playing with it, by messing with it.

Andrew: There’s this thing called modal theory, and people think of it as something really super advanced and really complicated. It’s like, my gosh, it’s so easy and it’s so fun. That’s where you take a scale and instead of making C the bottom note, you make D the bottom note in the C major scale. You’re playing the Dorian mode. And my gosh, it’s like it just opens up a whole new area in that scale. It’s so much fun to do, and it’s like the doing of it that makes it work. You know, the doing of it, of getting it in your hands and actually doing it where you’re improvising and making things up, and you’re exploring and you’re discovering the theory and how it works for yourself. That’s what brings it alive.

Stewart: I will say that I guess in the terms of improvisation, some of the bands, what we always love to do is write via improv. Normally it’s three of us. So, there’s a bassist, the drummer, and me. We always find some great stuff just by kind of improv-ing and getting in the jams, and just kind of winging it.

Stewart: The worst is normally we get to the end and realize that we had never recorded anything that we had, so then we have to go back, “What were we doing two minutes ago?” So, that was the only thing. But, it is. That improv, it leads to great creative moments that then … like you were discussing scales and I was thinking about a lot of times … that’s part of that whole theory thing is being able to go back, because sometimes I’ll come up with some kind of bizarre rhythmical thing and I’ve got to go back and go, “Okay, what am I supposed to solo over this?” Because there’s got to be some scale going on even though this seems like a bizarre key. But yeah, knowing that theory is the proper thing that makes it all come alive.

Stewart: The podcast on this subject that really seemed to speak to me and I could relate with was episode 160 with John Hatcher from The Blues Guitar Institute. He talked about the mix of flash, or technique, with also knowing the fundamentals of theory and putting it all together. Here’s that clip.

John Hatcher: I think what I teach at Blues Guitar Institute, try to balance the technical stuff because it’s fun. It really is, and you need it. You need it to pull off certain things in great music, but I try to balance that with the theory and kind of move together in lock-step and explain why. Because you can learn something out of a tab book, but it doesn’t mean that you can recognize that and the next thing if you don’t really understand it. And for me, it’s just part of me having that framework of those basics, those fundamentals. It helps me recognize things, it helps me recognize patterns, it helps me learn things quicker, it helps me not feel like a complete idiot sometimes if I’m sitting in a jam circle, I’m like, “I can at least get through this”

John Hatcher: So, I don’t know if that totally answers your question there, but I just think that this stuff is very important to learn along with those crazy, cool things from the tab books.

Christopher: Fantastic.

Stewart: So, the whole podcast was kind of … it gave me a lot of flashbacks of my earlier years doing heavy metal, which I won’t go back to what year that was. Anyway, we would have folks come out who would try out to be a second guitar and lead, and they would come in and they would hit these solos and just nail them. I mean, they would be note for note perfection. But then when it came to doing the rhythm or having them play rhythm behind me doing the solo, they would get off. They weren’t able to, number one, be able to sync with the bassist and the drummer, but also number two, if we said, okay, we’re just going to improv here a little bit, they would kind of look at you like, “What in the world is going on?” So, it seemed like they never got past, what he was saying, the tab books. They’ve learned it and they’re perfect, but they’re kind of stuck in that place. Not that there’s anything wrong, but you’ve got to go to that next step.

Stewart: It also happened … there was a guitar player back then I just had huge respect for. He was just a phenomenal guitarist. They would write their own stuff, great player. His technique was just … it was Jon Petruchi style technique. So he came out and just watching the band I was with at the time, and we were like, “Oh man, you want to jam? We’re going to do some blues.” He look at me and he goes, “I don’t know how to do that.” I’m like, “What do you mean you don’t know how to do that?” He goes, “I’ve never jammed.” He goes, “All the solos I do, I write out.” I’m like, “Really?” I was kind of blown away because I was like, number one, I was like, wow, he writes every solo out perfectly but he can’t just kick into a jam session and have fun with it. But still, I’ve always had huge respect for what he did.

Stewart: So today, I find knowing and having a decent idea of theory, along with some technique and flash, has helped me. I’m definitely not the flashiest guy you’ll ever see, but I have learned the things that has gotten me gigs and some good paying gigs, that has helped going along with also professional work ethic. So, such as these shows I do with this tribute artist. We do Elton John, Billy Joel, and Rascal Flatts. When I first got in he told me, “Oh, by the way, I do wardrobe changes during Elton John. So, be prepared for longer than normal guitar solos,” to which my jaw hinged and fell over, and I thought, “Me?”

Stewart: So, I needed to know how to improv and be able to actually develop it. And also what made it more interesting is this guy doesn’t do band rehearsals. So, to have that theory and know how to develop things using improv became a big thing for me because it’s knowing how to be able to use your ear, improv correctly, add rhythm and everything else. Because the other band I play in, I’m the only guitar. So when I do a solo, I have to make sure that I’m rhythmically correct too and paying attention to that.

Stewart: Speaking about improv, we have discussed this. We have a great improv roadmap that hits on all these things that we are talking about, about chord tones and using melody. And I have to say, I have learned from it and it’s been great, as Andrew has put so much time and effort into those modules. But it has helped me, especially during these longer abnormal guitar solos, and I appreciate that. But yeah, I always think learning off tabs is great, it’s fun. It sounds great on video on Facebook clips, but you also have to know the fundamentals of rhythm; how to phrase a solo, how to work it, especially if you’re called on to improv. Knowing scales, knowing improv techniques like the roadmaps, knowing how to find the keys of songs, which was an issue in one point because when you’re playing with these guys who are all piano, playing in the key of the song becomes a little sometimes trickier than a lot of other songs.

Stewart: So, I’ve had to learn how to find that. You know, doing the chord progressions through when playing songs written by piano guys. Yep. I just said that. But anyway, and I had mentioned this early, it’s finding that sweet spot of flash and technique, so to speak. Or we can say theory and fundamentals along with the flash. It can really make you a nice rounded musician that can go into different styles and really help your playing.

Andrew: Stu, I think it’s so cool what you’re saying. My big takeaway from what you’re saying is that theory makes things easier. A lot of times we think that, oh my gosh, how am I going to learn that? It’s going to be such a thing, it’s so difficult to learn it. We learn from what Adam was saying from David Reed, that it’s not that hard to learn if you’re doing it by exploring it, and improvisation is a great tool to explore it. It’s not that sort of out of this world.

Andrew: Then once you learn it, without your knowledge in music theory, doing those gigs would be a nightmare because you’d be basically stabbing in the dark in every … that’s what Mathew talks about. It’s like this idea of stabbing in the dark, where it’s like, okay, well, that sounds really cool, but what is it? Then you just goof around on your guitar until you figure out, okay, this sounds kind of right. But if you know, it’s like, okay, well, I know what this progression is and I know what this is going to be. It narrows down my possibilities. Then you can do the kind of gigs that you’re doing. You know, doing gigs where you’re learning massive amounts of music in a very short amount of time, and still having fun and enjoying it.

Andrew: It’s one thing, like for me too, it’s like when I growing up it was always about learning that recital piece. You know, that recital piece. It was like I would spend all year learning my recital piece, and then the day after recital I’d … I’d kill it on the recital, then I’d forget it the day after the recital and sit on the next year’s piece. It’s like there’s so much fun you can have with music, either creating music or learning music, and with just a little bit of theory and having the right mindset to learning that theory, it just makes things easier and funner. Funner, there’s a word for you. I just improvised that word.

Stewart: Speaking of funner, I have a funny story in relation. So, the first time I play with this guy, and it’s been a three year process doing these improvisations, and I’m learning and getting better at it. You’re always feeling like, okay, I can still do better than what I just did.

Stewart: Anyway, the first time I did it, he already warned me. One song was Benny and the Jets. So, we hit it, and I’ve done long solo things before, but this is longer than anything I’ve ever done. So I go into it. I mean, I’m feeling really good and I feel like I’m building it. I get to where I’m like, okay, I’ve got all my ideas done. I look over and we’re not done yet and something hits me I’m like, “Oh shoot, now where?” But it hit me like, oh man, I’ve got a lot more work to do because I’m out of ideas. But yeah, it definitely put me through my bases, and still does.

Adam: Stu, you were talking about the guitar player who could play these solos note perfect and didn’t know what he was doing really. I had the exact opposite experience where I was … I immediately jumped into Metallica, Dream Theater, all these really good guitar players. I’m like this kid on this little stratocaster, and I couldn’t play them. I was trying to play things note perfect, note by note on these tablatures. It didn’t work for me until I discovered pentatonic scales and I discovered these boxes that all these other guitar players were working on throughout the fretboard, and suddenly the fretboard became alive for me. I could see the fretboard in this three … I was like, whoa. So, not only could I learn solos way quicker than I ever could before, I could see things. I could see where they were going, I could see how they were moving in and out of the different inversions of the scale.

Adam: I could also improvise more. And best of all, and this is just the 14 year old in me, everyone thought I was amazing. Like, “How are you doing that?” Well, it’s just this scale. I didn’t want to tell them. I don’t want to give up my secrets because it was earning me gigs, but it was just that very basic understanding of theory that just opened up all these doors, tons of gigs. Anyway, it’s cool how we have this fundamental thing and we all kind of come at it from these different angles. I think that’s healthy. And as teachers, as musicians ourselves who are talking to other musicians, we should encourage that exploration. Hey, that didn’t work? Try this. That didn’t work? Try this. There’s so many different ways to come at it and there’s no right way to learn this stuff. There’s your way and whatever works the best for you.

Stewart: Yep. Very much agreed. Yeah. I mean, luckily, this guy … the guy I play for, he does let you explore, but he will also tell you if you may have gone too far. So, I actually did that. We did the song Rocket Man, and I came up with this ingenious idea to use the delay pedal as part of an effect for the solo. If you hold it, it does this little thing where it takes your notes and it goes kind of up and then back down. So, I kind of warned him first, and then at the end I said, “So, what did you think of that?” He’s like, “It may be a little too much.” But at least he was cool and he let me kind of experiment with it a little bit. So I thought it sounded like it was a rocket taking off and going to outer space. But maybe only once it should do that, not five times.

Andrew: That was so much fun. I love talking about this stuff, I love being with you guys, and it’s really cool. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Adam: Fantastic. I have to admit that this mindset was not something that was in place when I first started learning theory at the university level. I remember being frustrated by learning all these rules and guidelines that seemed completely disconnected from the music that I was playing, especially the popular music. This was something I’ve heard from Musical U members, from followers on our Facebook post, from just people I meet on the internet. And as Andrew reminded us, come on guys, it’s not rocket science.

Adam: At the end of the day, music theory is simply a way of explaining what is occurring in the music that we are playing. But, the music came first. Music theory was born out of the way the composers and musicians were creating music. You can almost say that it’s as simple as defining best practices, rather than a strict definition of rules that you must follow. I would encourage to start with the music they love and learn how it is put together. These abstract rules like a third, a tri-tone or secondary dominant, make a lot more sense when you hear them first.

Adam: My final thought is the argument that we hear so often, that certain musicians never learned music theory, so why should you? I would argue that while popular musicians like The Beatles, Metallica, and even Jimi Hendrix may have never learned what a particular musical trick was called in theory, they certainly understood how it made sense in their songwriting. If you were to sit these musicians down and give them the technical word for what they were doing, they would certainly understand because they already understood how it worked through their listening and their musical ears.

Adam: I hope these approaches are a good jumping off point for you, and encourage you to dive into a better understanding of music theory, exploring this wide world of music that surrounds us. A big thanks to Andrew and Stu from the Musical U team for joining me on this rewind episode. It’s always fun talking about these subjects. Until next time, thanks for watching Musicality Now.

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